Winter is the most challenging season for those of us who seek to eat fresh, locally grown food. Most of what we find in the grocery store produce department in December has been shipped from miles away, and although some crops grow well in a variety of climates year-round, our gardens are typically not producing an abundance during these shortest days of the year.
However, eating in season doesn’t have to stop just because it’s cold outside. Eating in season in winter requires more planning—creating preserved foods that can last in the freezer or on our pantry shelves is one crucial element. We can also stockpile a wide variety of late-season foods for several months by storing them properly.
Finally, in winter we’re wise to welcome a period of simplicity and rest, including a simplified diet of hearty veggie stews and casseroles. The more we can depend on root vegetables, pickles, preserved garden goods and whole grains, the more we can eat well all year—without need for foods shipped halfway around the world. Read on for recipes and tips for a winter-friendly diet that’s chock-full of nutrition and flavor.
The early weeks of winter often feel like one long celebration of food as I taste my way through a seemingly never-ending series of holiday parties. Aromatic roasted nuts, sugary winter squashes, savory wild rices, exotic mushrooms and decadent sweets tempt me at every turn and prove that all food tastes best when shared with friends and family.
By January, I am completely content with winter’s simple menu of warming soups and stews, casseroles, roasted roots and sautéed greens. Soups and sauces simmer all day in my kitchen and fill my home with wonderful aromas. The freezer and pantry overflow with frozen and canned foods—the summer’s pesto, berries from the picking patch, and pickled beets and beans—all ready to add just enough spice to winter’s comforting menu. Everything about winter, from its short, cold days to its simple and sweet tastes, allows my mind and body to rest.
• Fermented Pickles Recipe
• Lentil Apple Walnut Loaf Recipe
• Seitan Bourguignon Recipe
• Shiitake Mushrooms and Bitter Greens in Phyllo Recipe
• Super Strengthening Stew Recipe
• Tree of Life Stir-Fry Recipe
Storing Produce Through Winter
Did you know vegetables are composed primarily of water? Even something as solid as zucchini is 95 percent water, and white potatoes—which have the lowest water content—are still 79 percent water. When a vegetable is pulled out of the soil or picked from a plant, depriving it of precious H20, the cell walls start to lose moisture and eventually collapse, causing wilting.
The key to preventing vegetables from going limp is to create a breathable barrier between the moist vegetable and the dry air of your fridge. Plastic bags and kitchen towels work wonders for this; I wrap veggies in clean rags (from deconstructed T-shirts, bed sheets or threadbare towels) then put them in plastic bags (usually the produce bags from the grocery store). I tend to store all my vegetables this way, on shelves where I can see them (forgetting is often the cause of wilted produce). You can also roll vegetables in sack towels or linen tea towels and then store them in crisper drawers. Keep vegetables and fruits in separate drawers, and keep leafy greens in their own drawer if possible. (Keep tender greens away from ethylene-emitting produce, such as apples, avocados and bananas.)
A good rule of thumb for determining how to store a vegetable is to visit the produce section of a supermarket. Vegetables that are kept chilled and damp with overhead misters (such as leafy greens, broccoli, carrots and scallions) need cold and humidity. Vegetables that are kept dry in the middle of the produce section (such as potatoes and onions) thrive in the same environment in your kitchen. If you find that your carrots aren’t as crisp and your greens aren’t as snappy as you’d like them to be, you can revive them in a sink full of cold water (the colder the better). Within a half hour, they’ll perk up as their moisture is replenished through osmosis.
Leafy Greens: If you are growing them, you may still have fresh greens in the ground, even down to freezing temperatures. Or, you may be getting fresh greens through your community-supported agriculture (CSA) box, or from a winter farmers market. To ensure they last, wash all fresh greens before you store them. Fill a sink or wash basin with cold water, then soak and swish greens to let any sediment sink to the bottom. Lift greens and shake off excess water. Wrap them in a dry towel, place in a loosely sealed plastic bag, and refrigerate. If you have a salad spinner, give your greens a good spin and refrigerate them right inside the spinner.
Broccoli: Broccoli can be grown for early summer or late fall harvests, so you may be able to find this crucifer in your market into early winter. Leave heads of broccoli unwashed and refrigerate in a loosely sealed plastic bag.
Scallions and Leeks: Both scallions and leeks are easy to grow for a winter harvest, and in many places, pretty much year-round. Wrap unwashed scallions and leeks in a damp towel, place in a loosely sealed plastic bag, and refrigerate. If your scallions often get slimy before you use them all, store them upright in a glass of water on your kitchen counter; as long as the roots are intact, they’ll “regrow” over the course of several weeks. Simply snip off what you need from the top of the stems, and new stems will continue to grow from the base. Change the water periodically if it starts to look murky.
Carrots, Radishes, Parsnips, Beets and Other Root Vegetables: Depending on your climate, you may be getting freshly harvested root vegetables until early winter, but even those roots harvested in fall will last a long time if stored properly. Immediately trim greens from roots, leaving about an inch of stem. If left attached, the greens will continue to draw moisture from the roots and cause them to dry out and go limp. Wash and store the greens as you would any other leafy greens.
Leave roots unwashed, loosely seal in a plastic bag, and refrigerate. If you like the convenience of prewashed carrots and radishes for snacking, gently scrub the roots clean and refrigerate them in containers filled with water. Change the water every couple of days to keep the vegetables fresh.
Winter Squash: Winter squash should be stored in a cool, dry and dark place, such as a cupboard or counter. In ideal conditions, it could keep for several months. Unused cut squash should be wrapped in plastic or stored in a closed container in the fridge.
Garlic, Onions, Potatoes and Sweet Potatoes: Many types of garlic, onions and potatoes will stay fresh for a couple of months if stored well. Sweet potatoes are likely to last about a month. Store all these in a cool, dry and dark place in well-ventilated baskets or bins, paper bags or mesh bags.
Adapted from The CSA Cookbook: No-Waste Recipes for Cooking Your Way Through a Community Supported Agriculture Box, Farmers' Market, or Backyard Bounty by Linda Ly and published by Voyageur Press, 2015.